January 5: John 1:18

John 1:18

This is the final, climactic verse of the Prologue, and, in many ways, is the most difficult to interpret. The difficulty lies primarily in the thorny textual question that continues to be debated by New Testament scholars and commentators. First, let us view verse 18 in the immediate context of verse 17 and the final strophe of the hymn (verses 14, 16 [with v. 15 temporarily omitted]):  

“And the Word came to be flesh
and put down (his) tent among us,
and we looked at his splendor,
splendor as an only (Son) alongside (the) Father,
full of (His) favor and truth—
and out of his fullness
we all (have) received,
and favor in place of favor.”

“(For it is) that the Law was given through Moshe, but the Favor and Truth (of God) came to be through Yeshua (the) Anointed. No one has ever yet seen God; but the only <Son>, the (one) being in the lap of the Father, that (one) has brought Him out (to us).”

The angle brackets in verse 18 above indicate the disputed textual unit. Here is essentially the same rendering of the verse, with a placeholder for the word in question:

“No one has ever yet seen God; (but) the only <..> (who has) come to be—the (one) being in the lap of the Father—that (one) has brought Him out (to us).”

There are three versions of this textual unit (in italics above):

    • monogenh\$ qeo/$ (monogen¢s theos)
    • monogenh\$ ui(o/$ (monogen¢s huios)
    • monogenh/$ (monogen¢s)

All three versions contain the word monogenh/$, the meaning of which was discussed in the earlier note on verse 14. The manuscript evidence for the first two readings should be considered in more detail. It is rather evenly divided, as the following diagram illustrates:

Clearly, o( monogenh$ ui(o$ is the majority reading, supported by an impressive range of early and diverse witnesses; this normally would be sufficient to confirm it as the original text. On the other hand, the “earliest and best” (Alexandrian) Greek MSS, along with other strong/diverse witnesses, read monogenh$ qeo$ (with or without the definite article). As noted above, few manuscripts also read simply o( monogenh$.

The reading with qeo$ (“God”) would seem to be the more difficult, and, on the principle of difficilior lectio potior, perhaps is to be preferred. Scribes may have altered it to the more familiar ui(o$ (“Son”). On the other hand, there was a marked tendency for scribes, consciously or unconsciously, to modify the text in favor of a stronger Christological emphasis. There can be no doubt that the reading [o(] monogenh$ qeo$ became a key text in support of the Deity of Christ. Even today, many theological and apologetic writings cite John 1:18 for this purpose—however, to do so, without any indication of the divided textual evidence, is really quite irresponsible.

If we begin with the reading that contains only the adjective monogenh/$, as a substantive (with the definite article), it would literally mean something like “(the) only one (who has) come to be”. Sometimes this specifically refers to a person coming to be born (i.e. a child or son); but often it means simply “only one, unique, one-of-a-kind”, or the like. The second reading (monogenh\$ ui(o/$) is the most straightforward, as it essentially means “only son”, i.e. the only son born (to a mother/parent). This is presumably also the meaning where monogenh/$ is used alone— “only (son)”, as it was used in verse 14.

The reading monogenh\$ qeo/$ is more difficult, and has been translated three different ways:

    • monogenh\$ qeo/$ (monogen¢s theos) =
      • “(the) only/unique God”
      • “(the) only-born [or only-begotten] God”
      • “God the only(-born) Son”

Which reading more likely represents the original text? And is there any significant difference between them? Let us address the first question, considering the arguments in favor of each reading, in reverse order from how they are listed above.

    • monogenh/$— “only (one) [born]” There is essentially no Greek manuscript support for this reading; it is attested in the writings of several early Church Fathers (commentators/theologians such as Origen, Epiphanius, and Cyril of Alexandria). However, it is attractive as a way to explain the other two readings (with “God” or “Son”). If the text originally read just monogenh/$, scribes (copyists) and commentators would have been inclined to explain it, expanding the text, more likely (and often) by adding “Son” as the natural meaning in context (“[the] only Son [born]”).
    • monogenh\$ ui(o/$— “only Son [born]” This is the most common and widespread reading (cf. the diagram above), including that of some important early manuscripts (such Codex Alexandrinus [A]). It also happens to make the most sense. Jesus refers to himself (or is referred to) as “(the) Son [ui(o/$]” quite often in the Gospel of John, and almost always in relation to (God) the Father. As already noted, the word monogenh/$ is used in this context earlier in the prologue (verse 14); moreover, elsewhere in the New Testament it is almost always used in combination with “son” (or “daughter”)—see Luke 7:12; 8:42; John 3:16, 18; Heb 11:17; 1 John 4:9.
    • monogenh\$ qeo/$— “only God [born]” or “God the only [born Son?]” This is the reading of some of “the earliest and best” manuscripts, including the early (Bodmer) papyri 66 and 75, Codex Vaticanus [B] and the original copyist of Codex Sinaiticus [a]. It must also be considered the most difficult reading—what exactly does the expression “only (born) God [qeo/$]” mean? An important principle in textual criticism follows the saying difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is preferred”). The idea is that copyists would be more likely to change the text (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to a reading that was easier to understand or which made more sense. As noted above, “only (born) Son” is a much more natural expression.

Is it possible to determine the original reading based on scribal tendencies—that is to say, which reading was more likely to be altered during the course of copying? In terms of transcriptional probability, the evidence is far from decisive, though, I think, slightly in favor of ui(o$ as the original reading. In the early (Alexandrian) scribal tradition, both readings would be represented by nomina sacra (“sacred names”)—a convention of using marked abbreviations to represent various names and titles of God (and Christ). In these manuscripts, it is easy to see how ui(o$ (+u+s) and qeo$ (+q+s) might be confused. +u+s would have been much less common as a sacred name, and more likely to have been (accidentally?) modified to +q+s.

Moreover, I have already mentioned the tendency for scribes to enhance the Christology of a passage, rather than to detract from it. While the reading “Son” (ui(o$) still supports a high Christology, in terms of the Deity of Christ, it is not as striking or explicit as “God” (qeo/$). The latter reading would be fully in accordance with the orthodox Christology of subsequent generations. The expression [o(] monogenh$ qeo$ could easily be understood in terms of later credal formulations (whether Nicene, Chalcedonian, or from the Westminster standards), but one should be extremely cautious about reading these back into the first-century text. Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, Christ is identified (or identifies himself) with the Father, but perhaps never so explicitly as this variant would indicate (especially if the definite article is original). The wording of John 1:1 (kai qeo$ h@n o( lo/go$, “and the Logos was God”, discussed in an earlier note) is most precise (and, one might almost say, cautious)—note the anarthrous form (without the definite article), and the specific word order.

By a narrow margin, I favor the reading monogenh\$ ui(o/$ as original. It is more in keeping with the Johannine usage (cf. especially Jn 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9), and the emphasis on Jesus as the Son. It also reflects the regular meaning of the adjective monogenh/$ as it is used elsewhere in the New Testament, and fits the context of its occurrence in verse 14 of the Prologue. Given that earlier usage in the hymn, it is quite appropriate for the Gospel writer to present us with the full expression here—monogenh\$ ui(o/$—referring to Jesus, the incarnate Logos, as the only Son of God.

Having dealt with the textual question in some detail here, it remains to examine the meaning of the verse as a whole, which we will do in the next daily note.

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